Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Obscurity of the Day: Roger Bean
An unusual success story, Roger Bean was one of the earliest family strips. Charles 'Chic' Jackson created the comic strip for the Indianapolis Star where it first appeared on April 22 1913. Unlike most comic strips of the day which depended on gimmickry of one sort or another, the Bean family were 'jest plain folks' and Jackson poked fun at their foibles and frailties with no mercy. He also introduced continuities, a rarity at that time.
Hoosiers like their homegrown cartoonists and quickly became devoted to the strip. Roger Bean became a must-read in Indianapolis, and Jackson began syndicating the strip in the Midwest through the Laura Leonard Newspaper Service. Just two years into the run Jackson further consolidated his franchise by adding reprint books to his repertoire. Legend has it that a brand of coffee was also named after the strip, but I've been keeping my eye peeled for proof of that for years and have never found any evidence.
Roger Bean's franchise took a serious hit in the 20s when other family strips became popular. The Nebbs, Doing of the Duffs and others all now plowed the same ground. The Gumps, particularly, seems to have been directly modeled on Roger Bean. Jackson's creation couldn't keep up with these more professionally produced strips. Jackson was, to be kind, a folk cartoonist. His drawings, full of tortured anatomy, inexpressive faces and blank backgrounds, were decidedly unpleasant to view, and amazingly, never improved one iota throughout the long run of the strip. His fascination with dialect made many of his strips an arduous exercise in deciphering the characters' speech.
Jackson tried to improve his fortunes in 1925 when he signed on with the George Matthew Adams Service newspaper syndicate. The national syndication did help, miraculously getting his strip into some big city papers including the Chicago Daily News. But Roger Bean remained a limited success, still mostly appearing in Indiana and other Midwest papers.
Roger Bean ended after a twenty year run on September 23 1933, and Chic Jackson passed away the next year.
A couple of addendums on Roger Bean; first, it has been said on Lambiek.net that the family members aged in this strip, an innovation usually attributed to Frank King's Gasoline Alley. Although I can't claim to have read a huge number of Roger Bean strips I haven't seen any indication that the characters aged. Perhaps the children grew up some over the years. Suffice to say I'm skeptical of the claim.
Second, regarding the racist stereotyping of the black character Jose as an utterly brainless idiot -- in my (admittedly limited) reading of the strip I've come to the conclusion that Jackson may well have cleverly been subverting the stereotype and that Jose is anything but dumb. I think she's actually brilliantly clever -- she plays the part of a fool to drive the Beans crazy and to ensure that she's never depended on or given any responsibilities. Am I giving Jackson too much credit?
The info of Comiclopedia on Chic Jackson's strip comes from Jerry Robinson's book 'The Comics' (Berkley, 1974). It says on page 101: "The family strip had its own population explosion. Roger Bean by Chic Jackson, one of the first comic families to age, had started back in 1913."
Great to have some more info on Chic Jackson on the web. Is it okay with you if we update our bio with the info you gave on your blog? It would also be great if we could use some (fragments) of the strips you posted as illustration. I shall make a link to your excellent blog at the bottom of the page.
Best regards from The Netherlands!
Well, Jerry Robinson is a great guy but as a comics historian let's say he doesn't gets bogged down in the details. Maybe he's right about the aging thing, I just haven't noticed it in my limited reading of the strip. That being said, his Percy Crosby book is one of my favorite cartoonist bios.
I make no claims to the scans on the blog since I am not the copyright holder. I do appreciate it if those who re-use them give a credit line to my blog though as a courtesy.
As for the editorial content, that is copyrighted. The facts, of course, are public domain but the text of my essays may not be reproduced.
Thanks. I won't use the entire text, I'd just like to update the entry with with some extra facts.
Of course I'll add a link!
I agree with what you wrote about Jose. Although drawn as a racial stereotype, she is an intelligent and well-rounded character. That was Jackson's real strength, not just with Jose but with all of his characters. As an artist, he was never very accomplished, but as a writer, he was a keen observer and had a good ear for Midwestern speech. Jackson's characters did age. His foundling son Woodrow (named for the president) arrived on his doorstep as a baby. By the time the strip ended, he was, I believe, approaching college age. The foundling child who ages in real time was his innovation, not Frank King's. Because of the obscurity of Roger Bean, however, and the fame of Gasoline Alley, King gets the credit.
Interesting that he used the 'baby on the doorstep' plot. I didn't know about that. Do you know what date that happened? If it was before Gas Alley did the same, I'd sure like to find those strips to see just how close the parallel is!
I'm a Great-Granddaughter of Chic Jackson, and found this page when doing a search for his name + Roger Bean. I've got to say, I'm amazed that after so very many years ago, there are still people out there who have some knowledge of the strip and my Great-Grandfather...people other than his family, that is. ;-)
I have a soft-bound book that is a collection of his strips, the front cover title is "Roger Bean" with a small profile of the character...I'm not sure when it was published but I believe it was after his death because there is a dedication to Chic and a photo of him working on a strip on the inside: "Happiness is one thing; sorrow, joy, fun and trouble are others - but living is all of them. To the memory of him who depicted everyday life and the human side of humanity - and to the people whose loyal support he so appreciated is this volume of his work dedicated."
Great-Grandpa Chic did other art besides the strip, personal stuff ....watercolor, pen and ink, pencil works that were framed and around my Grandparent's home. I inherited his drafting table...it is rather small compared to modern tables, scarred and ink-stained, but beautiful solid wood with an (iron-wrought?) base. I am a graphic designer, and like to think some of my art genes come from him. :)
And just to back you up in your conclusion, Jose is indeed a very smart gal and delights in putting one over on the other characters! :D
Woodrow Wilson Bean was born on November 13, 1914, and showed up on Roger and Sylvia Bean's doorstep in a market basket on Christmas Day, 1914. He was already four years old by the time Gasoline Alley made its debut on November 24, 1918. Frank King followed Chic Jackson's example by having Skeezix delivered to Walt Wallet's doorstep, also on a holiday, Valentine's Day, 1921. I imagine King knew of Jackson's innovation as there was a close connection between Chicago and Hoosier cartoonists in those days. I'm not sure that anyone knows about the innovation now, though.